Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, by Tanith Lee

Just as a disclaimer at the beginning, Lee’s stories aren’t all based on the Grimm brothers’ collection of folk tales—the ballet Swan Lake is based (so far as I can tell) on several Russian folk tales, and Beauty and the Beast is French, first set down by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve—but in the main, she’s selected fairly well-known tales:

Original story/Tanith Lee’s tale:
     1. The Pied Piper/The Paid Piper
     2. Snow White/Red as Blood
     3. Rapunzel/The Golden Rope
     4. The Frog Prince/The Princess and her Future
     5. Sleeping Beauty/Thorns
     6. Cinderella/When the Clock Strikes
     7. Little Red Riding Hood/Wolfland
     8. Swan Lake/Black as Ink
     9. Beauty and the Beast/Beauty

There are hints of Hans Christian Anderson in some of the religious symbolism, and Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Chambers in the horror/supernatural aspects herein, but all filtered through a modern feminist sensibility and bedded in a vocabulary much lusher than the originals on which Lee’s based her tales. (Many of the fairy tales are disappointingly sparse in their terse setting down of the plotline.) Additionally, the stories diverge from the originals in their settings in locale and period; they’re arranged chronologically, according to Lee’s settings, from “The Paid Piper” set in Asia in the first (or last) century B.C. stretching forward to “Beauty”, set in an unspecified but fairly distant future and an unnamed but northern country.

In “The Paid Piper”, the titular character steals not the living children of Hamelin, but the as yet unborn in the town of Lime Tree, where the rat god Raur is worshiped. In “Red as Blood”, Snow White is the daughter of a witch, and her father has married a Christian woman, who drives out the evil witchcraft in her stepdaughter by arranging for her to be confirmed in this new religion. In “The Golden Rope”, Rapunzel is taken down to her betrothed in Hell…which is not the Hell her captor believes it to be but a beautiful haven for her. “Thorns” is a fairly straightforward take on “Sleeping Beauty”, until the prince realizes that despite having woken the princess, she and her court are still dreaming of their own time a century before. Well, think about it: would you really want to marry someone from 1913, who’d slept through the intervening century? Imagine explaining World Wars, mustard gas and nuclear weapons, iPads and flying to the moon! “When the Clock Strikes” always reminded me of “The King in Yellow” and “The Red Masque”, though it’s intended as a retelling of “Cinderella”, in which it is ‘Ashella’ who is the evil servant of the Nether Regions, and her stepmother and stepsisters truly good people who are ashamed that they cannot reach out to the girl who appears a mad simpleton. “Black as Ink” is a fairly straightforward (at least for this book) retelling of “Swan Lake”, in which the swan may is transformed into a beautiful and unaging girl, who must learn human ways but upon whom the human mannerisms rest uneasily

As with many collections of short stories, readers will inevitably prefer some stories to others; I’ve never been crazy about Lee’s take on Swan Lake, not least because I wasn’t familiar with the ballet when I first read the book. Of the seven, I’m inclined to like the two longest, “Wolfland” and “Beauty”. In “Wolfland”, a variant on “Red Riding Hood” (complete with red cape), the grandmother who lives within the deep dark woods is not threatened by the Big Bad Wolf…she IS the wolf; she has become a werewolf, with the aid of a liqueur derived from the yellow flower that grows only in these woods, in order to preserve herself from her brutally abusive husband. She recognizes in her granddaughter Lisel the one to replace her as mistress of the chateau and the wolves in the woods. “Beauty” is interesting in that it has a futuristic setting, combining the world of folk lore with that of science fiction; the Beast is one of an alien race, which came bearing benign gifts, and left members of its race on Earth. Unlike other tellings, it is not the Beast who transforms literally into human shape, but Beauty, here Estar, who finds that she is a figurative Beast.

What to read next? This time, I’ve got a suggestion, other than the obvious collections of Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm Brothers and Perrault. Angela Carter, specifically her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories. She’s the only author who, I think combines the fairy tale ambiance with modernization and feminism that is…twisted or kinky is too strong and too suggestive in a variety of ways, and indirect too subtle. Updating, perhaps.

Sold by Patricia McCormick

Thirteen-year-old Lakshmi lives in Nepal with her hard-working mother, gambling-addicted father and a brother who’s too little yet to have developed a character. They’re poor, even by Nepalese standards, which makes them impoverished by first-world nation standards, but Lakshmi does not feel so. This is all she knows, so she is happy in her world, and wealth to her means a tin roof rather than the thatch her home currently has and an electric light to drive away the darkness in her house at night. She is on the cusp of adulthood by Nepalese standards and so is putting away childish things for the concerns of a woman in her culture and community: considering marriage–she is already betrothed to a local boy–and raising cucumbers and a goat to augment the family income in the garden. She is attending school, and is the best student despite lacking pencils and paper.

As her father’s gambling and therefore his debts grow larger and more pressing, he sells Lakshmi; she believes that she will work as a maid in a wealthy home, and is confused when the woman purchasing her complains that she has no hips. What does that matter to someone who employs a domestic servant? Readers with a sense of women’s problems in other countries will know by now where Lakshmi is going, but she is is nothing but shocked when she arrives at her destination–a house of girls–and realizes the true nature of the business in which she’s participating. There are sweet moments, when she befriends some of the girls in the house and the tea boy, who comes around with cups of prepared tea, but overall life is unspeakable, and the methods of calculating her earnings against her expenses are rigged worse than a gambling house’s odds; there is no way she can earn her freedom. Only the mistress of the house will earn a living; all the girls may expect is to be used until they are worn out, ill and old before their time.

In the end, she reaches out to an American who offered her help, despite what others have told her that this is only a trick; the Americans will strip her and force her to walk naked through the street to be ridiculed.

The author’s free-verse style in this book both conceals and heightens the horror of what’s happening to Lakshmi; at no point does McCormick use the terms “prostitute” or sex-worker, though no amount of metaphor can conceal what’s happening. This is fiction in that the author’s made up all the characters. The problem itself is quite real, and one likely to be unimaginable to many of the teenagers likely to be reading the book; while there are scams in the United States as well as Nepal, most kids won’t be forced to sell themselves physically as a result of such a job. Although I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it to younger kids who’re both mature enough to handle the issues raised in the book and whose reading is above grade level, although for cataloging purposes, I’d put this in the teen section of a library’s collection (or ruefully in the adult collection for the most conservative communities) as the central theme of prostitution might be considered too mature for pre-teens.

TeenRoads Review

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Calpurnia Victoria (usually called Callie Vee) Tate is eleven and three quarters the summer she discovers the joys of being a naturalist and a scientist and roaming the country surrounding the small town in Texas where she lives, starting with trying to figure out why in this particularly dry summer, the ratio of yellow to green grasshoppers is reversed. (Usually, there are far more greens than yellows). Unfortunately, this is also the summer she discovers that adult women, to which group she will presumably eventually belong, do not have quite the same employment opportunities as men. Women’s roles were a trifle more circumscribed in late 1899 than they are today, to be sure: Callie had the choice of being a teacher or a telephone operator1, and both of those only before marriage…which the adults assume she will want to do eventually, an attitude which Callie finds perplexing as everyone knows boys are icky and kissing is slimy.

Her grandfather, a cantankerous old Civil War veteran, instills this love of science in Callie through his own delight in observing natural phenomena around the home and community. The two rove the countryside examining bugs and plants and snakes and frogs, setting one of the book’s subplots in motion: the discovery of a subspecies of vetch, which they send off to (one of the museums comprising) the Smithsonian for identification. The delightful tension of awaiting the Smithsonian’s reply provides a pleasant counterpoint to Callie’s mother’s insistence that Callie learn the delicate and practical female arts, ranging from cooking and knitting to tatting and embroidery, which will prepare her for the skills she’ll need in the inevitable adult roles of housewife and mother. Callie has little talent and less interest in the housewifely skills–she wins third prize in the county fair’s tatting competition which has only three entries, and her pie crusts are leaden as cobbler topping–and it’s not clear by the book’s conclusion whether she will become reconciled to the expectations of her family or will choose a divergent path.

As did a good many dedicated committed intelligent scientists before her, from Madame Curie to Annie Jump Cannon.

Overall, this is a gentle read for the 8-12 set; there’s nothing particularly unsuitable for young children with the possible exception of Callie’s assisting her grandfather in taste-testing his efforts to create an alcoholic beverage from distilled pecans, although even there it’s not presented as a particularly attractive foodstuff; Callie’s assessment is “causes coffing”, when she first tries the stuff. The characterization and scene setting struck me as a bit flat–unleavened or uncarbonated–but then I’m well out of the intended readers’ age range. That simplicity is a distinct advantage for those learning to read! Presenting the idea that girls can do science, even if in the larger society which insists otherwise, may prove an inspiration to girls today; I’d hope that the descriptions of how Callie and Grandfather examine the things they encounter, whether plants or microscopic pond organisms, would give kids of either gender a basic grasp of how scientists observe the world around them. If Kelly does that much, then I’ll call it a worthwhile book.

Other readers have mentioned Caddie Woodlawn and Roller Skates as possible alternatives for kids who liked this and want to continue in the same vein; unlike the recently published Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, both are written some time ago, but are set in approximately the same time period, and with the same air of discovering the world around the child, though neither in so scientific a manner. The Anne of Avonlea books and Laura Ingalls Wilder books might work as well, though they’re more “biographical” in nature.

1admittedly, a more important job prior to automated telephone switching; for those too young to remember (or to have read other books from the time) you couldn’t just dial the number of the person you were trying to reach but rather had to be physically connected by an operator who plugged in the appropriate phone jacks.

Remember thou art mortal: When we were Gods by Colin Falconer

Falconer’s novel is, as the subtitle suggests, about that fascinating ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra VII. She may not be the best known, or even the most effective; indeed, it’s arguably true that she wasn’t even particularly Egyptian inasmuch as the Ptolemaic Dynasty wasn’t much for speaking Egyptian. On the plus side, the Ptolemaic tendency to cling to their original heritage at the risk of cheesing off the very people they were attempting to rule did give (comparatively) modern scholars a key to the written Egyptian with that most iconic of translators’ tools, the Rosetta Stone.

The plot’s either simple or complex to describe depending on how much depth one requires for background information, beginning with the death, or rather the funeral, of Ptolemy XII1 and ends with Cleopatra’s suicide by asp, in response to the defeat of her second lover, Marc Antony, and his own suicide. In between, of course, there ranges all the political intrigue and petty machinations that plagued the people of the time but enlivened the reading of those interested in the history of the period. and relies as much (or more) on the legends and mythology surrounding the primary characters, from the large1) to mere background details2. In fairness, this is a novel; there’s an element of “reader, beware” in regards how much fact goes into a work of fiction.

The short version, for those who didn’t pay attention in history class: Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, was the kind of competent determined woman beside whom Hilary Clinton appears a phantasmic remnant of ambition. Status of women, even royalty descended from gods, was significantly inferior to that of men; while nominally, women could share the throne of Egypt, they held comparatively little power relative to men. Driven from her city and desperate to return to rule the country she loved, Cleopatra consolidated her claim to the throne in the only way open to her: seducing Julius Caesar, and after his death, Marc Antony. They ceded the right to oversee what they considered a farflung province of the Roman Empire, Egypt, to this woman. As Marc Antony himself slipped down the power structure, she backed him with all Egypt’s resources…but that came to naught. As history records.

Despite its length, I’d suggest this more for people who already knew something about the Cleopatra/Marc Antony liaison, beyond what’s in the Wikipedia articles. Falconer doesn’t include much historical background or analysis, instead concentrating on the characters’ inner workings, their thoughts and feelings, to the point that I had to concentrate on whether the dialogue was spoken to someone else or the character’s own thoughts, as the two are only demarcated by being inside or outside of quotation marks. It’s an interesting device, as it allows readers a clear and immediate insight into what is being left unsaid at the time of the conversation in question. As a device, it’s a bit confusing unless you are matching opening with closing quotation marks. To additionally muddy the narrative (or spice it up, depending on your perspective) he switches from perspective to perspective–Cleopatra to Caesar to Marc Antony–and while this gives an additional insight into the various characters’ mental processes, always a pitfall for limited perspective narratives, it can be distracting if one’s missed the transition.

What to read next? I’d suggest Margaret George and Michelle Moran; while both have written books about Cleopatra and her children, both authors have also written other historical novels, which those who’ve enjoyed this might find equally enjoyable.

1the manner of Cleopatra’s demise
2the slave whose duty was to whisper “Memento Mori” (“Remember you are mortal.”) in the ear of Roman generals leading their triumphal parades back into the empire’s titular city
1father of the heroine

Unreliable narrators, I’ve your new hero: An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Four narrators: one instigating storyteller and three subsequent men who respond to the first and in the course of telling their own story, reveal a bit more about the central character. With each section, we find out more about the central character, but as each character tells events from his own perspective and with his own biases, leaving some things out and including others, can we determine the truth? Who’s right?

The central events of the book are set in Oxford, in 1663. The Commonwealth interregnum has ended and Cromwell is dead. Charles II is on the throne, much to the relief of CofE members. Marco da Cola, a disingenuous young Venetian man and son of a powerful Venetian trader, arrives in London to communicate with his father’s factor, di Pietro, only to discover that di Pietro has died and the English man through whom he works has embezzled all the funds and disappeared…and English law is on the side of the English. Nearly penniless, he makes his way to Oxford to meet the academician there whom his professor in Padua has mentioned. He settles there to occupy himself until Giovanni da Cola can arrange to send him the passage money home.

He’s off on the wrong foot when he agrees to treat the aged mother of an impecunious young woman, Sarah Blundy, whom he overhears pleading with a man in a tavern for assistance. Anne Blundy has broken her leg and attempted to set it herself, as the medical treatments of the day were simultaneously too expensive for a charwoman and a maid but only marginally an improvement over simply leaving the leg completely alone. Da Cola splints the leg as best he can, and whips up a poultice to cover the wound, though Sarah Blundy aggravates him by refusing to purchase an ingredient for same, powder of worm. Shortly thereafter, da Cola becomes acquainted with some of the academicians in Oxford, ranging from Boyle to one Lower, a physician of sorts; da Cola and Lower attempt a rudimentary blood transfusion between Anne and Sarah Blundy (mildly successful) and Anne seems to be improving when Sarah is accused of poisoning the former employer who refused to aid her with Anne’s broken leg. Sarah is tried, found guilty though there is no real definitive evidence against her, and hung…after which Lower, a budding anatomist, claims her body and dissects her in an uncharacteristically messy manner, disgusting da Cola who flees this nation of barbarians for the civilized home he so longs for.

Well, sort of.

This is where the remaining three narrators enter, one at a time, to tell their version of events in order to debunk da Cola’s story. Jack Prestcott is a young student at Oxford, determined to prove his father’s innocence and reclaim his lost family estate, now managed by his uncle, and obsesses with this to the detriment of his studies and his family relations, only to be proved wrong at the end. John Wallis is a cryptographer, closely tied to Cromwell’s forces when they were in power, and yet retains some political connections and influence; he captures da Cola before the man escapes the country, interrogates him and orders the captain of the ship which removes da Cola from the country to throw him overboard…only to find da Cola’s account of his time in England, presumably written after he arrived home, though that is not spelled out. Each of the four accounts have increasingly perplexing discrepancies introducing real doubt. It is not until we get to narrative #4, that of the Oxford historian Anthony Wood, that we find out what da Cola really was and why he came to England.

Or do we?

Frankly, by the time I finished the book, I didn’t believe any of the four men, except to allow as how da Cola might not be the innocent he purported to be. Four perspectives on the same crime and the aftermath of same can make for a considerable “unreliable narrator” in aggregate even when all four are attempting to genuinely tell the whole truth as they percieve it, as we all have our own opinions and different portions of the truth. When the characters are all attempting to mislead one another, and quite possibly the readers, in some way, it’s a tangled web of duplicity. The Unreliable Narrator is a fairly common literary device, and this is a mixture of several subtypes.

Who’d like this book? Perhaps people who like Umberto Eco’s earlier works but found The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana too straightforward, short and simplistic? An Instance of the Fingerpost is long. It’s complicated. It’s literate. It requires some little erudition and historical knowledge on the part of its readers to make sense of the political machinations and motivations of the characters. Most distressingly of all it requires the reader to not only read the entire thing but pay attention to the differences between the narrators’ tales of da Cola and Blundy in order to sort things out.

In short, readers of An Instance of the Fingerpost are expected to….(drumroll please)….read.

The horror.

After finishing it, I’m dubious even of the final narrator’s reliability, who purports to tell the truth about da Cola’s real mission in England and Sarah Blundy’s real fate. He’s plausible, but then so were the previous narrators! Now, off to watch Rashomon and read The Moonstone…after I reread An Instance of the Fingerpost now that I’ve read the reveal.

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry, or murder investigation in the Victorian era

Imagine waking up with complete amnesia, but not being able to admit you can remember nothing about your previous life.

Well, as a plot device it can be either very good or (kindly) mediocre.

William Monk awakes in a London Hospital, having no memory of who he is, who his friends and family are, nor even his job. Even his face is unfamiliar to him. Desperate to conceal that he remembers nothing, he frantically pieces his life and livelihood together, though not surprisingly this is rather like assembling a nightmarishly complex jigsaw puzzle without the picture to guide you. The hospital sends him home as soon as he is able to care for himself in a minimally rudimentary fashion, as there’s little the medicine of the era can give him in terms of therapy.

His boss, Runcorn, sends Monk out immediately to finish up with a murder case he’d been working on before the accident that hospitalized him. Ordinarily, this haste would be no more than routine–the Peelers, being a newish resource for the city, are under a great deal of pressure to prove their worth by solving crimes quickly and efficiently–but the murder victim is the youngest son of an Earl, and additionally social pressures are being brought to bear. However, Runcorn is acting in a manner peculiar enough for even the still befuddled Monk to notice; he suspects that Runcorn is setting him up to fail for reasons which lie on the other side of the gulf created by his memory loss. Nevertheless, he does his best to investigate. The Honorable Joscelin Gray has been found dead, as the result of a brutal beating that can only be delivered by a madman or someone who loathes Joscelin beyond reason; nothing has been stolen from the flat, despite there being a number of valuable items small enough to snatch up and conceal about one’s person.

Upon interrogating the family at their estate, he meets only disdain and stonewalling; the police are regarded as being mere tradesmen and therefore to be dismissed as quickly as possible as they are not worthy of social notice or niceties. The family denies everything. Hester Latterly is a guest of the family as Monk investigates, and the two clash, as Hester does not fit the ideal of Victorian feminine behavior: she is too outspoken, too determined, not at all flirtatious or inclined to ruffly pastels1. Her father’s untimely death (almost but not quite declared a suicide) after disastrous business issues proves to be intimately connected to Joscelin’s death, however, and she proves invaluable to Monk as she wishes to uncover the truth about her father’s death. As the mystery unravels, Monk suspects that he is himself a suspect in the case…

While I did enjoy the book overall, not least because it falls into the same cozy police procedural as Death of a Butterfly, I don’t believe that a man who’s lost his memory in its entirety would be able to pull off so quick a return to his job, nor would others around him be so quick to assume (to any degree) that he was capable of doing so much less not notice that he’d forgotten all he knew. (In fairness, one crucial character does figure out early on, but keeps the information to zirself for zir own reasons.) Also, there’s another problem–the same one I had when reading What Alice Forgot: while the protagonist may have lost his (her) memory, no one else has…and chances are good, some significant proportion of the others are going to stick with their original opinion of Our Protagonist, despite protestations (and behavior changes) to the contrary. It strikes me here that a police investigator who cannot remember how to conduct a police investigation, much less what he himself has done in this specific investigation prior to the accident which cost him his memory, will quite frankly stick out like a sore thumb. Thankfully for my irritation at twee plot devices, Monk does finally ‘fess up to the character who proves to be his sidekick in later mysteries what has happened, and she helps him piece things together; she is related to someone whose death is connected to the murder Monk is investigating, and thus might ask questions without arousing too much suspicion.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this strikes me as being very similar to Perry’s other series, about Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, both in style, plotting (mildly complex) and characters/characterization (bordering on cardboard/stereotypes). I’ll wait until reading book two in the series before deciding how better to judge this series, but in terms of readers’ advisory, the two series strike me as similar enough that readers who like one might consider the other. If it’s the style of police investigation, the Sigrid Harald series might work. If it’s the setting, but not the mystery style, I’d suggest Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery; it’s somewhat less shrill, but discusses at greater length the social stratification in London at approximately the same time period, including considerable detail about criminal slang of the time.

1while normally I laud strong female characters and the men who come to appreciate them, oddly this seemed a bit jarring until the two started to become friends

The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning

My, women’s rights have changed over the years. Have tempers and genders changed with them? Not much, according to Sally Gunning’s book.

Our protagonist, Lyddie, is married to a Cape Cod whaler, Edward Berry, and, like many “grass widows”, is quite used to being left to manage on her own for days, weeks or months at a time while Edward is away at sea. His death, while heartbreaking from an emotional standpoint, seems to her to be little more than a permanent version of what she’s been doing already for a great deal of her marriage: managing her house and home without the aid of a man. However, as a woman in 1761, she has no property rights whatsoever; as a young woman, everything would have belonged to her father, as a wife, everything was legally her husband save what she brought into the marriage herself, and now that her husband is dead, all goes to her son-in-law save the ‘relict’s third’ which her husband left her in his will.

The legal, familial and community assumption is that Lyddie will move in with her daughter and son-in-law, Nathan Crewe, attempting to maintain a separate household within their pre-existing and already cramped household. To fund this endeavor, Crewe plans to sell the house in which Lyddie has lived for the past 25 years, along with all its furnishings and household goods, retaining the proceeds from the sale to offset the extra expenses incurred by having an additional member of his household. In addition to the indignity of having to move in with her children despite being a still strong woman in middle age, Lyddie and Nathan Crewe have never gotten along personally.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of relinquishing her autonomy and household is insupportable to Lyddie, and in short order she moves back into “her” house, despite the memories it holds of her beloved (and now deceased) husband, claiming the cow and household goods from her son-in-law’s home to which she is entitled. Life on her own is startlingly impoverished, as there are few ways a woman could support herself alone at that time, even if she had the full support of her community…and Lyddie has been all but ostracized as a result of her squabble with the respected Nathan Clarke and her friendship with her Native American neighbor, Sam Cowett. Without marketable skills or the esteem of her community, it seems that the only way she may stay in her home is to remarry, but even that means relinquishing her hardwon independence from familial obligations.

I’m left with a few questions. It strikes me that much of Lyddie’s lesser property–livestock, fleece, preserves, any seeds she may have saved over from the previous winter–vanished like a soap bubble. While I understand that much of her initial problems stemmed from the fact that she had spent several months with her daughter, and therefore had missed the opportunity to start that year’s garden, and begin collecting wood to age for the next winter’s woodpile, it strikes me that she’s left with very little in the way of short-term resources. Did Lyddie have no ready cash prior to moving in with her daughter and son-in-law? How did she manage for cash when her husband was at sea for weeks at a time?

Overall, I’d call this a well written introduction to life of the late eighteenth century in what was about to become the United States, for those who’ve not read much about the period since leaving high school. The dialogue is decently written, without resorting to transliterated dialect. The American Indian character is noticeably different from the Caucasian characters without being reduced to a pitiable savage. The son-in-law and daughter provide an interesting example of blended families and remarriage; divorce was not a viable option but the number of people who died young, whether in childbirth or as a result of hazardous jobs, meant that families in the Clarke’s situation were not all that uncommon. Lyddie is a grand heroine, determined to retain her independence in the face of everything she’s known; it’s lovely to read of a heroine with the gumption to choose pride over approval. Unfortunately, it wasn’t evocative enough of that specific time period as other books I’ve read, whether The Witch of Blackbird Pond or Outlander, leaving me with the uncomfortable suspicion that it might have been set anywhere in a two hundred year timespan, between colonization of the Americas by the British and the ending of the whaling hunts via sailing ship.